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The Cutthroat World Of Academia
About the Author: Jon Matthew Farber has publications in Ellery Queen and Black Cat Mystery Magazines, among others.

They found Professor Stewart with a clean, perfectly horizontal, incision in his neck, clutching a cell phone in his hand.

Normally, when a dean at a university dies, the adjective perhaps most often used to describe him is ‘beloved.’ This was categorically not the case with Stewart. The kindest word anyone volunteered for him was curmudgeonly; most used much more derogatory epithets. His reputation was, it must be admitted, well-deserved. Comments about him would usually have qualified as slander, were it not for the fact that they were true.

Detective Natasha Crosby was assigned the case. The situation was fairly straightforward. The victim had been found near his apartment. He had been killed while walking home, after teaching an evening class. According to the ME, he had bled to death, the whole process taking perhaps one to two minutes. There were no witnesses, no weapon was found, and there were no clues except for the phone with its enigmatic message.

A week’s worth of investigation narrowed down the suspect list, but Crosby was still at a dead end when she decided to call on her friend Spock for help. They agreed to meet in his office on campus. Spock was a professor of mathematics and logic, and his room was on the third floor of one of the older ivy-covered buildings, overlooking the main quadrangle with its gothic structures. Interspersed neatly along the wall containing his diplomas and awards, there were two Escher drawings. If one looked closely at the shelves packed with numerous academic tomes, one could also find his ‘fun’ section. There, among others, was Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Hofstadter, Smullyan’s What is the Name of this Book?, a first edition of Amusements in Mathematics by Dudeney, and Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writings by Gardner. The two shelves above this were devoted to physical puzzles and games. Besides the universal Rubik’s cube, here one could also find a well-worn wooden Staunton chess set and clock, a 15 puzzle, a set of tangrams, some wrought-iron entanglement puzzles, and a Soma cube.

Detective Crosby was tall with blonde hair cut short, blue eyes, and an athletic figure. Spock (whose first name was so long and consonant-laden that nobody ever used it) was slightly above six feet, thin, with expressive eyebrows and pointed Stahl ears.

Crosby, sitting in one of the two chairs across from the desk, was speaking. “The difficultly is, I’ve got three good suspects, in that they all had motive and were in the vicinity when Stewart was killed, and none of them have alibis, but I don’t have any further evidence apart from the phone, which has me stumped. I was hoping you could be of assistance. I know you don’t gossip, but I also know you’re a sponge at picking up information. You’re also very fond of cryptic messages. Perhaps we could start with you giving me some more background on my threesome.”

“I’ll be glad to offer any assistance I can. Who’ll be the first candidate for discussion?”

“That’d be Geordie Burton, from the school of engineering. His feud with the late professor goes back two years, but it might help if I understood it better.”

“Dr. Burton had been put forward for promotion to associate professor by his department at that time, but when he came before the academic senate, the next step in the process, Professor Stewart, who delighted in being contrarian, objected, claiming his research was of neither sufficient depth nor quality to merit advancement. He was able to cow sufficient other members of the faculty into agreement, scuttling the promotion. It didn’t take long for Dr. Burton to determine who was responsible for thwarting him, and he understandably resented him ever since.”

“Does the murder help him in any way?”

“He comes up for promotion again later this year. With Professor Stewart no longer around, I expect him to be confirmed easily. I also serve on the senate, and supported Dr. Burton the first go-round; he deserved tenure, and was indeed treated unfairly.”

“Next up is William Frakes.”

This story appears in our OCT 2022 Issue
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